Once upon a time, Asheville had a premier electric-trolley system. Between 1889 and 1934, several private companies operated lines that ran about 40 cars and totaled 18 miles of track. The service linked the main train depot, downtown and surrounding areas.
Why not build a new system that transforms the city into a modern model for public transportation? ask planning expert David Johnson and architect Joachim Bruder.
Just months after the first American system was installed in Richmond, Va. in 1888, Asheville got the second. George Vanderbilt had installed a generator and electric lights at the Biltmore Estate, Johnson recounts. With more electricity than he needed and a keen interest in using new technology, Vanderbilt helped establish a powered trolley line that ran from Biltmore Village to downtown Asheville.
It quickly expanded into a-state-of-the-art network that shuttled customers between the city center and its "suburbs," such as Montford and West Asheville. Old photos show the hustle-bustle of people boarding and disembarking as trolley cars converged on Pack Square. Johnson has a flyer from 1899 on which you'll find the name of his wife's grandfather, Charles E. Waddell, who served as superintendent for the Asheville and Biltmore Street Railway and Transportation Company. In-town rides were a mere nickel, the flyer notes. A quarter fare would get you to Weaverville.
"With climate change and the need to save energy, there's reason to restart a streetcar system," says Johnson, a professor emeritus of planning at the University of Tennessee who is on the board of the Asheville Design Center. Semi-retired, Johnson now lives in Asheville. "We've been building highways to solve all our transportation problems, and that era is over."
Bruder and Johnson recommend integrating existing buses and bus routes with a network of electric, rubber-tired trams, creating an improved and expanded public-transit system that would cut carbon emissions and reduce our dependence on foreign oil. It would also reduce the need for more highways and more parking lots — two contentious topics in Asheville.
The city was once a trendsetter in transportation, with one of the first trolley systems in the world, says Bruder, who's from Germany. "If Asheville wants to be a greener city, we have to do something."
More commonly called streetcars in America, "trams" once referred to the cars used in British mines. Modern trams come in a host of designs that are compatible with auto traffic and easily accessed by the disabled and cyclists, says Bruder, as he shares photos of tram systems from around the world and a photo montage that shows what an Asheville tram might look like.
Kenosha, Wis. — a city of about 90,000 located north of Chicago — runs a short tram line using vintage Art Deco cars connected to an overhead power line. The tram routes link to the city's regular bus system and regional rail stations. In much bigger Strasbourg, France, the trams are ultra-modern, running on light rails and offering such amenities as powered wheelchair ramps and enclosed shelters at stops.
Whatever their size and design, electric trams are more efficient than gasoline-powered buses, and when well designed, the system blends into the urban landscape and invites ridership, Bruder claims. He explains how it would work: Small electric buses could bring riders from outlying areas to tram stops linking downtown Asheville, smaller town centers, colleges like UNCA, local schools like Asheville High, the Asheville Regional Airport and even tourist attractions such as the Biltmore Estate and the Blue Ridge Parkway.
"It would be a big network, bringing outlying people to the stations," says Bruder. It would encourage better urban planning and help make city centers more walkable, he continues.
The price tag?
About $250 million, but the system could be phased in, says Johnson. "For the cost of the Interstate 26 connector, you could have an entire public-transit system in the Asheville area," he estimates, suggesting there may be some federal funding available for a tram system. Considering the carbon-reduction requirements that may come out of the climate-change legislation being debated in the U.S. Congress, along with growing local interest in smart growth that slows urban sprawl, Asheville may just be ready to try the idea, Johnson suggests.
Mentioning he interstate highway system and such local amenities as the Blue Ridge Parkway, Johnson adds: "These things happened because people and civic leaders wanted them to happen and made them happen." He recommends working with the city's Master Transit Plan but looking a few steps further into the future. "Let's get ready to do something before the feds set greenhouse-gas limits," Johnson urges. "Cities with a plan will be a step ahead."
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Imagine this: A composite rendering suggests what a modern tram coming up Biltmore Avenue might look like. Image courtesy Joachim Bruder